Defining International Public Goods: Conceptual Issues by

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Defining International Public Goods: Conceptual Issues


Oliver Morrissey, Dirk Willem te Velde and Adrian Hewitt

Overseas Development Institute, London1
1. Introduction

The specific concern of this chapter is with answering the question ‘What are international public goods?’ That is, our concern is with defining and classifying types of public goods and identifying which of these can be considered to provide benefits on an international scale or with an international scope. Other chapters in this volume address issues relating to methods of financing public goods, deriving criteria for determining contributions to the cost of provision and how these should be made and shared (Chapters 3 and 4), and discussions of particular types of global public goods (e.g. Chapter 6). While we may comment, where appropriate, on such matters, they are tangential to our main focus. In particular, we want to ‘operationalize’ the concept and provide a basis for Chapter 5, which quantifies how much of donor aid can be said to have financed the provision of public goods by developing countries (including public goods that benefit these countries, and contributions of such countries to the provision of international public goods). In this chapter, we begin with very broad concepts, distinguishing national and international spatial ranges and identifying the types of benefits that give rise to public goods (and therefore aid classification). We then proceed to refine these to identify types of expenditures in various sectors that contribute to the provision of public goods.

The concept of global public goods achieved prominence with the UNDP publication Global Public Goods (Kaul et al, 1999). This adopted a broad and wide-ranging definition, that has subsequently been refined (e.g. Kanbur et al, 1999). Most recently, GDF (2001) distinguishes between ‘core’ and ‘complementary’ activities associated with the provision of international public goods. The essential point here is that international public goods provide globally available benefits; providing these benefits is therefore the ‘core’ activity. However, it may also be necessary to help people or countries to actually avail of the public goods (to consume them, as it were). Such enabling expenditures are ‘complementary’ to the public goods. This is discussed in some detail below (section 3) where we also consider another form of complementarity – expenditures (on national or local public goods) may be required to enable countries, especially poor countries, to contribute to the provision of international public goods. It is important also to draw a clear distinction between contributing to provision (production) as against contributing to the cost of provision (financing); we are primarily concerned here with the former, although we make some comments regarding the latter in the final section.
The concept of international or global (the terms tend to be used interchangeably) public goods is not as clearly defined as one would wish. There is now a large literature and while there is a broad consensus regarding what is at stake and what is being discussed, the nuances of writers differ. Many of the differences are essentially semantic, and should be dispelled at the outset. Each of the three words can be questioned. Does ‘international’ really have to mean that the benefits are completely global, in the sense that everybody on the globe benefits? In a broad sense yes, but in a narrow sense no. Almost everybody would agree that, for example, eradication of a disease (say malaria) is an international public good. In principle, everybody can benefit because the risk of contracting the disease is eliminated. In practice, one could identify many people for whom the initial risk of contracting the disease was effectively zero. They derive no discernible (or measurable) benefit, but the benefit exists nevertheless (the initial risk may have been imperceptible, but it was non-zero and is now zero). Thus, the benefit should be available to all even if some do not actually avail of the benefit. This relates to the willingness of beneficiaries (in this case the global public) to contribute to the cost of providing the public good.
A directly related issue is the spill-over range to which the benefits apply (Sandler, 2000, provides a detailed discussion). One can envision a range over the spectrum from global to local, with international, regional and national arrayed in between. There is no clear delineation of each point on the spectrum. The least evident distinction is between global and international public goods; it is expedient and reasonable to treat them as essentially synonymous. We use the term international largely for convenience, and to signify that while the benefits extend well beyond national boundaries they may not apply everywhere on the globe. National-level education would be considered a national public good, as the benefits accrue largely to the nation collectively. If educated people can migrate does this imply cross-border effects? The answer is no, because the individual migrant derives a private benefit; if this is fully recompensed in the destination country, there is no public good to that country. More importantly, it is not the provision of education in one country that provides a benefit to the other, but the act of migration.2 A national public good would be defined where the public benefits accrue to the public of the nation. Similarly, a regional public good would be defined as where the benefits accrue to the public of nations with contiguous borders (adjusting for specific issues that may arise regarding islands); see Ferroni (2001) for a discussion. A local public good is where the benefits are inherently and in large proportion sub-national. For our purposes, it is sufficient to distinguish national public goods from those with cross-border ranges. This leads to our first premise: an international public good is where the benefits are inherently international in range.
One could also question the precise meaning of ‘public’ in the context of public goods. This is at the heart of the economic concept (discussed in the section 2 below) and means in essence that ‘there are benefits that are not private in nature’ so that the benefits accrue to everybody (within the spill-over range). In essence, the benefits are shared by all (GDF, 2001). In the same way that global benefits do not imply measurable benefits to everybody on the globe, public benefits do not imply that every member of the public actually derives a measurable benefit. More precisely, it does not require that everybody derives the same level of utility from the presence of the public good. This leads to our second premise: benefits are public if in principle every member of the public can derive benefit from provision without necessarily implying that all people derive a measurable benefit. As we will see below, the economic concept adds another condition: that the same level of benefit is available to everybody. This gives rise to a distinction discussed in section 3 below, that between consumption and production. Most discussion of public goods is about producing them, or making the benefits available (in fact, much of the discussion is about contributions to the costs of provision). The case for provision can be made independently of the issue of whether every potential beneficiary actually derives the benefit (i.e. consumes, or avails of, the public good), although this will relate to their willingness to contribute to the cost of providing the public good (see section 5). However, utility is derived from consumption therefore to maximise utility (total benefit) it is desirable to enable everybody who wants to benefit. If the condition of being poor prevents such people benefiting from public goods, then measures to reduce poverty increase the utility derived from public goods. This is one reason why poverty reduction is desirable, but it does not imply that poverty reduction itself is a public good.
The final semantic issue to dispense with is the word ‘good’ itself. This is relatively straightforward – it means benefits that provide utility or satisfy wants. It does not mean merchandise (as in ‘goods and services’) nor should it be interpreted as normative (as in ‘for the good of the public’) even if it is. In this sense, the elimination of a public bad (e.g. disease or pollution) is itself a public good, where bad here means disutility. Thus, our third premise is that a public good is a benefit that provides utility to the public. The distinction between a private and public good brings us back to the discussion of ‘public’ above (see section 2 below).
The three premises stated above can be combined into a definition. An international public good is a benefit providing utility that is in principle available to everybody throughout the globe. An international public good does not imply measurable benefits for everybody in every country or nation; it does require that the benefits are available to the global public. The utility derived by individuals will depend both on their preferences and on their capacity to consume (e.g. the uneducated are constrained in their ability to benefit from global knowledge). In the case of a true international public good, the same level of benefit is available to everybody. This does not imply that everybody derives the same utility from the public good. The eradication of malaria may provide more utility to somebody living in Uganda than to somebody living in Iceland, for example, but the benefit of eliminated risk is provided equally to everybody. Thos living in Iceland, however, may be less willing to pay for the costs of eradication (see section 5 below). Eradication of a disease is an international public good because it eliminates the risk. On the other hand, reducing the prevalence of a disease (reducing the risk) may more appropriately be defined as a regional public good. The reduction in risk benefits those living where it is prevalent. Those living far away initially faced an imperceptible risk, and still do; in effect they do not benefit.
The definition above provides an answer to the question ‘what is a public good’ (it is not a unique answer, as others have provided equally accurate if slightly different definitions). In the remainder of this chapter we attempt to add flesh to the definition, to operationalize the concept. We attempt to answer the question ‘is a particular benefit an international public good’ or, more generally, to establish the characteristics of a benefit that render it a public good. Section 2 discusses the economic concept of a public good. This is the source literature and helps to establish the fundamental characteristics. The ‘geographical’ ranges of different types of public good are discussed elsewhere (Sandler, 2000) and receive only brief mention here. In Section 3 we identify the types of benefits associated with public goods and use this to address the relationship between international and national public goods. This includes a discussion of the related distinction between core and complementary public goods (GDF, 2001). A classification of public goods according to sectors – environment, health, knowledge, governance and peace – is provided in Section 4. Section 5 concludes, relating our classification to implications for financing the provision of international public goods in poor countries.

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